Feature

More than half of the nation's children are in out-of-home care. Research is increasingly pointing to the importance of the first five years of development. And yet early-childhood education and care continues to be overlooked by policy-makers, employers and even organized psychology.

That's why it's time for APA to become a key player in improving the lot of young children, says a report released by APA's Task Force on Psychology in Early Education and Care--a group funded by APA's Board of Directors to evaluate psychology's presence in the field.

Despite research that finds that at-risk children are more likely to succeed in school if they attend high-quality early-childhood programs, the nation's child-care system remains fragmented, its workers poorly compensated and the quality of care disparate, the report says. Compared with their better-educated peers, many children who have lower-quality experiences enter the first day of kindergarten already at an academic disadvantage--a gap that may continue throughout their education and be associated with lower education levels, underemployment, higher use of public assistance and higher delinquency.

In its report, the task force recommends ways that psychology can help improve the situation.

"We hope that the report and the recommendations will generate discussion and feedback among other relevant groups in APA--divisions, task forces, committees," says task force chair Barbara Hanna Wasik, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "More integration across the components of APA related to issues with young children will enable us to act with a stronger voice as well as with more expertise."

In developing the report, the task force examined major national reports, including the National Research Council's "Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development." From those studies, they identified three proposed early-childhood priorities for APA and the Board of Educational Affairs:

Take an active national leadership role in defining and supporting high-quality education and care for young children.

RATIONALE:

Psychologists are well-suited to address the special needs of children who spend time in out-of-home care, enter kindergarten without skills essential for school readiness, come from recently immigrated families, speak another language or have developmental disorders. APA should help shape the educational, social and psychological services that are provided, the report says.

Moreover, psychologists could do much more to proliferate high-quality programs that address children's needs, adds task force member Laura Barbanel, EdD, of the City University of New York's Brooklyn College.

One way to do that is by sharing research findings with policy-makers, says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate. In fact, psychologist Craig Ramey, PhD, gave a keynote to the National Governor's Association meeting in February in which he discussed evidence-based practice in early education.

RECOMMENDED ACTIONS:

  • Integrate issues of young children throughout all components of APA.

  • Increase networking with other professional organizations.

  • Disseminate knowledge about child development and adult learning to policy-makers, professionals and parents.

Advance the preparation of psychologists to provide services to children, families, teachers and early-education and care settings.

RATIONALE:

There are relatively few psychologists working with young children, and the number of graduate programs preparing professionals to enter the area is limited, the report says. In fact, a 2002 survey by APA found only four graduate training programs with stated interests in training students to work in early-childhood education. Moreover, graduate programs often lack a unified curriculum on early-childhood development and tend to overlook the role of families in young children's lives, the report notes.

RECOMMENDED ACTION:

  • Encourage the development of model programs for psychologists working with young children in education and care settings.

Support empirical research on critical issues of prevention, assessment and intervention in child development and parenting to inform services to families and young children.

RATIONALE:

There is still much to learn before educators can implement effective programs and services for young children, says the report. For example, psychologists can inform the current debate over formal, standardized assessments for young children versus more observational methods. Also, psychologists can investigate which interventions work best for children with specific kinds of difficulties.

RECOMMENDED ACTIONS:

  • Advance the application of psychological science to early-childhood education and care.

  • Encourage empirical research and create a corresponding data bank on young children's development.

  • Emphasize the importance of psychological theory in early-childhood assessment and intervention.

  • Advocate for sound assessment practices.

  • Disseminate research on such issues as family beliefs and culture, and young children with disabilities.

  • Advocate for a primary mental health-care system for young children.

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